Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Warner Brothers have come up with a few interesting film noir items in their made-on-demand Archive series, and This Side of the Law certainly qualifies as interesting.
This 1950 Warner Brothers offering is perhaps more of a gothic thriller than a true film noir but it has enough noirish elements to be worthy of consideration by noir fans.
We start in true noir style with the hero in a great deal of trouble telling us how he got into the mess in a flashback that occupies most of the movie’s running time. David Cummins (Kent Smith) was a vagrant who got a lucky break. At least he thought it was a lucky break. Lawyer Philip Cagle (Robert Douglas) pays Cummins’ fine for vagrancy and offers him a job. All he has to do is be another man for a week.
Cummins happens to be the splitting image of missing millionaire Malcolm Taylor. Taylor has been missing for seven years. In a few more weeks he will be declared legally dead. Cagle doesn’t want that to happen. Cummins will take his place.
Cummins turns up at Taylor’s palatial but very gothic mansion, Sans Souci. He manages to fool Taylor’s brother Calder and Calder’s wife Nadine. He even manages to fool Taylor’s wife Evelyn. So far so good, but Cummins soon discovers that Sans Souci is not a happy place. No-one seems to be pleased to have him back and no-one at the house seems to like anyone else there. Cummins starts to piece a few things together. Malcolm Taylor had been having an affair with Nadine. His relationship with his brother Calder had been uneasy to start but this affair had been the icing on the cake.
Evelyn hadn’t known about Taylor’s affair with Nadine but she knew about his other affairs and the marriage had clearly been very shaky indeed. Now Evelyn finds out about Malcolm and Nadine and a tense situation gets a great deal tenser. While this is happening Calder is being slowly consumed by jealousy. And of course they all wanted Malcolm’s money.
What Cummins hasn’t figured out yet is why exactly Cagle wanted him to impersonate Taylor. Cagle claimed he was acting in Evelyn’s interest and his explanation sounded plausible enough. Cagle also wanted to find out exactly what had been going on at Sans Souci, and exactly why Malcolm Taylor disappeared. Cummins is starting to get an inkling of what the real situation is and it puts him in a difficult position.
Cummins is your typical noir hero. He’s a decent enough guy and he really didn’t want to get involved in such a messy situation but he really needed the $5,000 Cagle offered him to impersonate Taylor. Now he’s in over his head and things are threatening to get out of control. He’s playing a perilous game with some very dangerous players.
Kent Smith had a very long career from the 1930s to the 1970s but never quite made it as a star. His leading roles were always in B-pictures. It’s difficult to understand why this was so. He had the looks and he had the talent. Perhaps the explanation is simply that he never got that breakthrough rôle that might have propelled him to stardom. In this movie he shows that he had what it takes to be a fine film noir lead. It’s a nicely understated performance.
Viveca Lindfors does well as Evelyn, but it’s Janis Paige who gets the juicy female rôle as the scheming femme fatale Nadine and she makes the most of it.
Russell S. Hughes’ screenplay (from a story by Richard Sale) is pefectly serviceable. Director Richard L. Bare had a long if undistinguished career but he keeps the action moving along. There are no wasted scenes and Bare and cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie capture the right atmosphere, a mix of film noir and gothic. The limited budget necessitated the use of matte paintings for some of the exterior shots of the cliff-top mansion but I always feel that the obvious use of matte paintings actually enhances a gothic feel, and that’s certainly the case here. Bare makes effective use of the classic gothic device of having key scenes played out on a treacherous cliff top. It’s an unoriginal idea but it works and it adds to the menacing gothic flavour.
The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a fine transfer although as usual in this series there are no extras.
This Side of the Law is an unassuming but thoroughly satisfying B-movie. Recommended.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Hawks’ first flying picture was The Dawn Patrol in 1930, a fine movie but it’s obvious that Hawks’ characteristic approach to film-making hadn’t yet quite coalesced. By the time he made Ceiling Zero six years later his mature style was fully formed and with such ideal subject matter he could hardly miss. And he doesn’t.
Federal Air Lines runs passenger, freight and air mail services out of Newark Airport. When it comes to passenger flights safety is the prime consideration but with the air mail it’s a different story. The mail flights take off regardless of weather conditions, even with zero visibility, the pilots flying on instruments and guided in to land by radio beacons.
Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien) runs the show. He has to answer to the airline’s owners but when it comes to day-to-day operations and hiring and firing of pilots he calls the shots. Nobody is very pleased when he hires his old First World War flying buddy Dizzy Davis (James Cagney). Dizzy had worked for the airline before and his reputation precedes him. It is a reputation for irresponsibility, selfishness, womanising, boozing and superb flying.
On arrival Dizzy behaves exactly as his reputation would suggest. Trouble starts to brew when he sets his sights on beautiful 19-year-old Tommy Thomas (June Travis), who has just made her first solo flight. Tommy is clearly an ideal match for a Hawksian hero, a spirited woman who shares the hero’s love for adventure and can trade wisecracks with the best of them. The problem is that another pilot, Lawson, is already in love with her and wedding bells are already in the offing. That’s a minor problem as far as Dizzy Davis is concerned. He can outfly any other pilot and he can win any other man’s woman.
Dizzy’s pursuit of Tommy will have fateful consequences. In order to make a date with her he swaps flights with one of the airline’s most experienced pilots, Texas Clarke (Stuart Erwin). The weather closes in and Texas finds himself making the flight in almost impossible weather conditions - ceiling zero, visibility zero and impenetrable fog. Texas is a fine pilot and in normal circumstances could cope even with conditions such as these but when his radio gives out on him he’s in real trouble. Without a radio his only chance of landing is to find a gap in the cloud cover, an outside chance at best. Dizzy knows that it was his selfishness that put Texas in this jam. Everyone else knows it too but they also know that it’s the luck of the game.
This movie divides neatly in half. The first half is zinging wise-cracking comedy in fine Hawksian fashion, a kind of dry run for His Girl Friday. Then, as it becomes obvious that Texas is in real trouble, the mood darkens and the movie switches to nail-biting tension. If the first half prefigures His Girl Friday then the second half clearly anticipates Hawks’ 1939 aviation masterpiece Only Angel Have Wings.
Hawks’ trademark rapid-fire overlapping dialogue is used to superb effect in both halves of the movie, providing sparkling comedy at first and then serving to ratchet up the tension as everyone’s nerves start to fray.
The classic Hawksian theme of men sharing danger and facing down death is very much in evidence. This theme was already in evidence in The Dawn Patrol but in Ceiling Zero it becomes even more Hawksian with the addition of strong very Hawksian female characters.
The criticism usually directed at this movie is that it is very stagey (and it was in fact adapted from a stage play). That criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the director’s approach to material like this. Hawks also liked to have his group of men facing danger of death cut off from the outside world. Having the action almost entirely taking place indoors, and almost entirely in a single room (apart from scenes of the flyers in the their cockpits where they are also cut off from the outside world), suits Hawks very well. It gives the movie the kind of claustrophobic isolated feel that he used so successfully in movies like Only Angel Have Wings and Rio Bravo (and The Dawn Patrol). This movie is very dialogue-heavy but the dialogue is always crucial in a Hawks film and in this movie it’s exceptionally important. Maybe a reliance on dialogue isn’t very cinematic in a purist sense but Hawks couldn’t have cared less. He wanted to make movies that worked and this one works very well indeed.
The acting certainly helps. This was one of James Cagney’s favourite movies and he’s in spectacular form. He’s in overdrive for the whole movie but that doesn’t prevent from revealing his character’s emotional depths. Cagney might be bouncing off the walls but he knows what he’s doing; he’s in complete control of his performance. Pat O’Brien provides the perfect foil. And as in any great Hawks movie the individual performances are important but more important still is the way the performances intermesh. In Ceiling Zero all the actors deliver on both counts.
The supporting characters are as strong as the leads. Stuart Erwin is delightful. Even quite minor characters such as Texas’s wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) are strongly delineated and complex. June Travis makes a fine Hawksian woman, strong in herself but equally strong in her willingness to support her man.
One outstanding characteristic of the Hawks action movie is the lack of villains. Hawks had virtually no interest in villains. Even in The Dawn Patrol there are no villains - the Germans are as brave and honourable as the British flyers. There is even a strong bond between them since both are actually facing the same enemy, the enemy being death. It was entirely logical that Hawks’ next two aviation movies should have peacetime settings. The battle against death and danger has no need for human enemies at all.
For an action movie Ceiling Zero has surprisingly little action. There is really only one major action set-piece, although it happens to be a very good one. The action itself is not all that important. The focus (as in The Dawn Patrol) is not on what happens in the air, it is on what happens to those on the ground waiting helplessly for the flyers to return. In spite of having relatively little action there is not a dull moment in the film, a point that some modern directors would be ell advised to take note of.
The only currently available edition of this movie is the French DVD release. The good news is that it is the original English-language version with removable French subtitles, and it’s a very good transfer.
Perhaps Ceiling Zero is not quite as good as Only Angel Have Wings, but it’s not that far behind. It’s absolutely essential viewing for admirers of Howard Hawks. It marks the arrival of the classic full-blown Howard Hawks style. The magnificent performance by James Cagney makes it a must-see movie. Very highly recommended.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
RKO’s 1931 Behind Office Doors is typical of the pre-code era in a number of ways. Apart from having some racy content the whole approach is not quite what you’d expect. The wives-vs-secretaries story line was tailor-made for a breezy romantic comedy but rather than going for laughs the movie plays it all dead straight. The result is what could be described as a romantic office melodrama.
Mary Astor plays Mary Linden. Mary is the secretary to the boss of a large paper wholesaling company. She’s been carrying a torch for the firm’s top salesman, Jim Duneen (Robert Ames), for quite a while. Her problem is that Duneen likes cheap blondes and Mary is neither blonde nor cheap. When the elderly boss of the company has to retire for health reasons Mary sees her chance. She manoeuvres Jim Duneen into a position where he seems the obvious choice to take over the company. Duneen is too busy getting drunk and chasing the aforementioned cheap blondes to be much of a manager but that’s no problem. Mary has been the one actually running the company for years and when Jim gets the top job that’s what she goes on doing.
Mary’s plan of course was that having got Duneen to the top and then kept him there through her own managerial skills he would then realise what a marvel she was and fall in love with her. Needless to say it doesn’t happen. Jim even has the poor taste to bring his current mistress Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy) into the company as Mary’s assistant. When someone first coined the word bimbo it was clearly Daisy Presby he had in mind.
Soon Mary has even bigger problems, when Duneen starts courting Ellen Robinson (Catherine Dale Owen), the daughter of the wealthy banker who bankrolls the company. Duneen isn’t in love with Ellen but it would obviously be a very advantageous marriage for him, putting him in the big league both financially and socially. And he has every intention of continuing to have his series of mistresses on the side.
Mary is meanwhile being pursued by Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez). Mary likes Ronnie but she isn’t in love with him and in any case he’s married. Mary is far too obsessed by Jim Duneen to consider any other man. In fact Ronnie Wales is a fairly nice guy and he genuinely cares for her while Jim has no interest in her whatever. Mary is actually not only smarter but also more attractive than either Ellen Robinson or Jim’s current floozy but Jim just doesn’t notice smart attractive classy women as women.
The major problem with this movie is that Carey Wilson’s screenplay just doesn’t have enough depth or complexity to sustain a serious treatment of such thin subject matter. The very uneven cast is a problem as well. Catherine Dale Owen is simply atrocious. Robert Ames is adequate but fails to put enough into his rôle to make Mary’s single-minded pursuit of him entirely convincing. Ricardo Cortez does his best but his part is so underwritten that he has few chances to shine. This is particularly unfortunate since the Ronnie Wales character really needed to be sufficiently developed to make him a serious rival to Duneen for Mary’s affections.
Mary Astor on the other hand is superb in a rôle that is far more demanding than it appears on the surface. She has to play Mary Linden as a woman who takes both life and love rather seriously but at the same time avoid making her a blue-stocking. She has to make Mary sexy, since the whole point of the movie is that Jim Duneen has a woman right under his nose the whole time who is not only more classy than his usual floozies but is also a beautiful and woman whose interest in him is clearly sexual as well as emotional. But Astor has to do this very subtly since Mary is a woman who just doesn’t do such things in an obvious way. Astor also has to ensure that the audience never comes to despise her character in spite of her excessively self-sacrificing behaviour. Astor does everything required of her and does it extremely well.
Pre-code movies also tend to be visually less than impressive. The studios were under severe financial pressure at the time and were looking to turn out movies like this one as quickly and cheaply as possible. There’s certainly nothing in the visuals of this movie to get excited about.
Behind Office Doors does however have plenty of the kind of racy content that pre-code fans enjoy. The sexual nature of situations is extremely blatant and while we’re clearly expected to approve of Mary’s determination to settle for nothing short of marriage we’re also clearly not expected to be shocked by men who maintain mistresses in a very open and public manner.
Hollywood’s pre-code movies are a strange and confusing experience for some viewers today. They express an attitude towards sex that seems at times very modern, but isn’t really. For some modern audiences this is frustrating - they see pre-code movies as somehow hypocritical or moralistic, or even timid. It’s as if Hollywood at that time was flirting with ideas of sexual liberation but (in most cases) was too afraid to go all the way. The secret is to remember that these movies are of their time. When we watch movies from the past it’s as if we were visiting another culture, one that can sometimes seem superficially very much like our own age but we always need to remember that it isn’t. The sexual and social mores of the early 1930s were very different from our own. The movies of the pre-code era might have questioned some traditional ideas about marriage but the reality is that very few people in the 30s were prepared to ditch marriage altogether, and while there may have been a more casual acceptance of things like pre-marital sex and infidelity than in previous ages the reality again was that most people were not prepared to jettison traditional views on such subjects altogether.
If we want to enjoy the movies of other eras such as this, and even more importantly if we want to understand these movies and understand the motivations of the characters, we need to maintain a respect for the values of the era. Judging Mary Linden’s actions by today’s standards just isn’t going to work. When Mary looks at the price tag on her lingerie and realises that effectively she’s selling herself for less than the going price for a floozy like Daisy she might not react the way a woman in 2013 would react but she does react the way a woman such as her would react in 1931 and the device makes its point rather neatly and economically.
Roan’s DVD release looks quite reasonable for a public domain movie. Behind Office Doors has some serious flaws but Mary Astor’s performance is good enough to carry the movie. Worth a rental for pre-code fans and worth a purchase if you’re a fan of this rather underrated star.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Ministry of Fear, released by Paramount in 1944, is not one of Fritz Lang’s more admired American movies. Lang himself was not entirely happy with it. In spite of all that I’m going to go out on a limb and describe it as a minor Langian masterpiece.
Lang admired Graham Greene as a writer and was initially enthusiastic when approached by Paramount to film Greene’s 1943 novel Ministry of Fear. Lang was usually very careful to make sure that any contract he signed would give him the right to make any alterations to the script that he considered necessary. On this occasion he neglected to take that precaution and then found screenwriter Seton I. Miller to be annoyingly resistant to making the changes that Lang sought. That may account for Lang’s later lack of enthusiasm for the movie, and possibly also for the relative disdain critics have displayed towards it. Regardless of all this it’s obvious when you watch the movie that Lang put a great deal of thought into the making of the movie. It includes some of Lang’s most effective visual set-pieces.
As the film opens Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is about to be released from what we assume to be a prison. As he passes through the gate on his way out we find that it is in fact a mental hospital. At this stage we have no idea why he had been confined in such a place and we will not be given that information until well into the movie.
While waiting for his train to London Neale wanders into a fête run by a wartime charity, the Mothers of Free Nations. He has his fortune told and wins a cake. His winning of the cake seems to cause a surprising amount of consternation among the other attendees of the fête. This strikes Neale as slightly curious but he is too anxious to get to London to worry about such trifles. He boards his train and this is the occasion for the first of Lang’s virtuoso moments in this film. A blind man enters Neale’s compartment and now Neale discovers that the cake he has won is a great deal more than just a cake.
That cake lets Stephen Neale in for a good deal of trouble. He soon starts to suspect that the Mothers of Free Nations might not be quite the innocuous charity it appears to be. When he meets the people who run the charity, Willi Hilfe (Carl Esmond) and his sister Clara (Marjorie Reynolds), his suspicions are somewhat abated. They are Austrian refugees and seem to be harmless enough. In fact Neale is rather taken by Clara.
Nonetheless Neale is determined to find out why a cake has caused him so much trouble and has almost cost him his life. He wants to track down the clairvoyant from the carnival and this quest leads to a séance, and the séance scene is handled brilliantly by Lang. It also introduces Dan Duryea as Cost, a character who will play some unexpected parts in the story.
Associated with the Mothers of Free Nations is a psychiatrist named Dr Forrester (Alan Napier). He has written a book offering a psychoanalytical examination of Nazism. Neale is rather puzzled by Dr Forrester and he is increasingly concerned about being shadowed by a rather sinister unidentified figure.
Neale is very unsure about trusting anyone concerned in these doings and the other characters are equally unsure about trusting him. Neale seems to have good reasons for not trusting them but then they seem to have equally valid reasons for not trusting him.
The audience has seen all these events from Neale’s point of view and knows no more about what is really going on than he does. On the other hand the audience has very incomplete knowledge of Stephen Neale himself and when snippets of information about him are revealed they may be inclined to be as suspicious of him as he is of the other characters in the story, especially when the reasons for his incarceration in the asylum are revealed.
The one thing that seems to be beyond doubt is that espionage is involved, but in this movie nothing is really beyond doubt. Everything and everybody seems equivocal (hardly surprising when the source material is a Graham Greene novel). It’s all shades of grey. Anyone could be guilty but we can’t be sure exactly what they might be guilty of.
The resolution of these various doubts will afford Lang the opportunity for a series of stunning visual tours de force.
Whatever reservations Lang may have had about Miller’s screenplay it does capture much of the distinctive Graham Greene flavour of the novel, although Lang’s handling of the material possibly contributes even more to the very effectively ambiguous feel of the movie.
Ray Milland is ideally cast. He had the ability to be very likeable whilst also leaving us in some small doubt about whether the characters he played were really what they seemed to be. Marjorie Reynolds is an effective female lead. Dan Duryea has little screen time but as always makes his presence felt playing a decidedly but subtly sinister rôle. The supporting is uniformly impressive.
The amount of time and effort Lang was able to put into his visual set-pieces makes it obvious that Paramount had provided him with a rather generous budget. The movie has the definite feel of being a movie shot entirely in the studio and on the backlot but that was true of most of Lang’s best movies of the 40s (a feature that is particularly evident in Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window). I feel this was very much to the advantage of his movies of this period, giving them a wonderfully stifling claustrophobic feel but even more importantly giving them a deliberately artificial feel that adds extra layers of ambiguity.
Optimum’s Region 2 DVD offers no extras but a superb transfer.
Ministry of Fear is often dismissed as a lightweight Lang movie but it is nonetheless very Langian and is also one the most visually impressive of his American movies. There are enough layers of complexity and ambiguity to satisfy any reasonable Lang fan. And it’s also an extremely entertaining movie. Very highly recommended.
Friday, November 29, 2013
It is late 1915 the 59th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps has been taking a pounding. Their commander, Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), finds himself having to send inexperienced young pilots straight into the thick of the fighting and inevitably many do not survive even their first mission. The stress is made worse for Major Brand since he himself, as the commanding officer, cannot fly combat missions. As a result he feels like an executioner sending men to their deaths.
Major Brand clashes repeatedly with his subordinate Captain Courtney (Richard Barthelmess). Supposedly there has been bad blood between them since an incident involving a woman in Paris, but as the kindly old squadron adjutant points out to one of the pilots the reality is that they are very close friends. They simply find it easier to deal with a difficult situation by blowing off steam at each other. This is a theme that will be echoed later in the movie, one of the many example’s of the movie’s interesting cyclical structure.
The squadron’s two veteran pilots are Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). Their job is to keep the green pilots alive while also carrying out their missions.
The war progresses and Major Brand is promoted to a headquarters job. Captain Courtney, who has always been derisive of desk-bound officers who send men into combat, now finds himself playing exactly that role.
The cyclical structure is the key to the movie. Crucial scenes are played out in exactly the same way on three separate occasions, each time with different characters, and each time with even greater emotional impact. A simplistic interpretation would be that this is a commentary on the futility of war but that would be quite uncharacteristic of Hawks, and in any case the film itself makes it fairly clear that this is not the intention. In fact the intention is to emphasise that danger and death are always the enemies and they are always with us. The movie is very sympathetic to the Germans who are portrayed as honourable and heroic foes and this is another indication that the enemy is not the soldier on the opposing side, the enemy is death itself. In one scene a captured German flyer is brought in. He is immediately asked if he would like a drink and he is soon carousing merrily with the British flyers. He is not an enemy; he is a comrade since he faces the same dangers the British pilots face and he faces those dangers with the same courage and cheerfulness.
Hawks was always fascinated by the behaviour of men confronted with the imminent danger of violent death. He was fascinated not just by the way men dealt with this situation, but the ways in which groups of men dealt with it. This early Hawks movie offers us the kind of setup he would use again and again. As in his later masterpiece Only Angel Have Wings the men of the 59th Squadron in The Dawn Patrol seem strangely isolated. We never see the superior officers who issue the orders to the squadron’s commander. We get only brief glimpses of events elsewhere. Virtually the entire movie takes place in the squadron’s commander’s office, the squadron’s recreation room, and in the air. By effectively cutting this group of men off from the outside world Hawks is able to focus on the men themselves and the way to relate to each other.
The men of the 59th Squadron have learnt, in classic Hawksian style, that the only way to face death is to laugh in his face. It might be sheer bravado but it works.
This movie suffers from many of the typical weaknesses of very early talkies. It’s slightly clunky in places and the supporting players in particular overact in silent movie style. This was also one of Hawks’ first talkies and his comparative inexperience shows at times. This gives the movie a rather ragged and raw feel that actually works in its favour. Hawks would later learn to tackle similar themes in a more polished manner but what matters is that the emotional impact is there.
The flying scenes were good enough to be re-used in the 1938 remake. The Hawks signature is apparent here as well. What matters to Hawks is not the action but the way men react to it and on several occasions Hawks simply shows the aircraft of “A” Flight taking off then cuts immediately to the squadron commander waiting anxiously at his desk for the sound of the returning aircraft. We don’t need to see the fighting; it is the emotional cost that matters. When the aerial fighting scenes are shown they are spectacular enough however and they stand up very well indeed today.
Richard Barthelmess gives a brooding low-key performance that captures the spirit of the dogged and indomitable Hawksian hero perfectly. Douglas Fairbanks Jr is somewhat histrionic but he gets way with it. We accept that a man in his position might well find that being slightly histrionic is the best way to deal with his situation.
The print used on the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD release is far from perfect but its flaws are nowhere near serious enough to detract from the enjoyment of the movie.
Without taking anything away from the 1938 remake this 1930 Hawks’ version ofThe Dawn Patrol has more emotional punch and is overall the better movie. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Nightfall was released by Columbia in 1957, a time when many authoritative books on film noir tell us that film noir was virtually dead. It has to be admitted that many of the late 50s movies included in film noir boxed sets are at best marginally noir. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise that Nightfall is both genuine noir and also an extremely good movie.
This movie was directed by Jacques Tourneur, written by Stirling Silliphant and based on a novel by David Goodis so maybe we shouldn’t really be surprised by its quality. Tourneur after all did direct possibly the greatest noir of them all, Out of the Past. Goodis was one of the best of the American hardboiled writing school, while Silliphant would go on to write The Lineup in 1958, another somewhat neglected but superb noir.
Nightfall starts off in classic noir territory. It’s night time in LA and insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory) is shadowing a man named Vanning (Aldo Ray). Fraser’s job is to recover $350,000 stolen from a bank in Wyoming. He knows Vanning was involved in some way but he can’t help having a nagging doubt about Vanning’s actual guilt. He’s been shadowing Vanning so closely that he feels like he really knows the man, and it is after all his job to recognise the signs of guilt in those suspected of crime. Somehow Vanning doesn’t quite fit. He’s obviously on the run and obviously scared but he doesn’t seem scared the way a guilty man would be scared.
Vanning has much the same effect on model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) when he picks her up in a bar. Being a model Marie has heard just about every phony line in the book from men but Vanning really does seem to be a pretty decent guy. When he tells her his story, even though the story might seem far-fetched to most people, she’s inclined to believe him. Pretty soon she finds she has little choice - she will have to trust him if she wants to stay alive.
Vanning’s story is told in a series of flashbacks. He was on a hunting trip in Wyoming with a doctor friend when they had a very unlucky encounter with a couple of very nasty bank robbers. It was the kind of encounter that could plunge a very ordinary law-abiding citizen straight into the worst kind of noir nightmare world, a world of casual violence and murder.
The nightmare is far from over. By a series of mischances the two bank robbers no longer have the money they stole from the bank, and they’re pretty sure Vanning either has the money or knows where it is. In a memorable and very noir night scene by a deserted oil derrick they try to convince Vanning to tell them where the money is. Their methods are convincing to say the least but things don’t turn out quite the way they planned.
From the very noir world of LA at night the scene switches to the magnificent natural beauties of Wyoming, but Tourneur has no trouble maintaining the atmosphere of fear and menace.
Aldo Ray is perfect as Vanning. He is a man with something to hide, something dangerous, something that haunts him, but at the same time Ray makes us feel that Vanning really is a very nice guy who doesn’t deserve his fate.
James Gregory was a reliable character actor and handles his role with ease. Ben Fraser is a man who doesn’t give up but he isn’t interested merely in getting a result. It has to be the right result. He’s a sympathetic character but a strong one as well.
The two bank robbers are Red (Rudy Bond) and John (Brian Keith) and they’re as dangerous a pair as you’re ever likely to come cross. Red is crazy, and it’s a bad craziness. Red likes hurting people and he likes killing people even more. John isn’t crazy and he doesn’t enjoy violence but he accepts violence as part of the package when you’re on the wrong side of the law. He won’t enjoy it but John will kill you with sublime indifference if he feels he has to. Either of these men on their own would be dangerous enough but together they’re a time-bomb waiting to go off. They would kill each other without a second’s hesitation and they will certainly kill anyone who gets in their way.
Red is your basic movie psycho, but Rudy Bond makes him memorable. Brian Keith gives one of his best-ever performances as John. There’s a touch of black humour in his performance but at the same time we’re never allowed to forget that he’s a cold-blooded killer, which makes the black humour quite disturbing. Which is of course the intention of both the actor and the director.
If there’s a weakness in the film it’s perhaps that Anne Bancroft’s character doesn’t have the necessary depth to make her a truly interesting film noir female lead. Bancroft does nothing wrong but she isn’t given quite enough to work with.
You expect some good visual set-pieces from Tourneur, and you get them. The oil derrick scene mentioned earlier and the later snow-plough scene are executed with the director’s usual skill. Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography is of the quality you’d expect from a cinematographer of his high reputation. The sudden switch from LA to Wyoming works well, nicely emphasising the lead character’s position, caught between the worlds of light and darkness.
This movie is part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics II boxed set. The lack of extras for this particular movie is disappointing but the 16x9 enhanced transfer is excellent.
Compared to his best work, to movies like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Out of the Past, Nightfall is perhaps lesser Tourneur but it’s still a superbly crafted and very entertaining film noir. Recommended.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
The Blue Max is perhaps the most underrated of all movies dealing with aerial combat in the First World War. In fact this 1966 British production is very underrated in general.
Unusually this movie looks at things from the German side. This is more than a mere novelty approach. Apart from the usefulness of showing us that the stresses of war are the same regardless of which side you’re on the class issue which is at the heart of the plot works more effectively this way, the gulf between the old Prussian nobility who dominated the officer corps in Imperial Germany being even more extreme than in other countries.
Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is an infantryman who finally, in 1918, gets the chance to serve in the air services as a fighter pilot. This also means promotion. Corporal Stachel is now an officer. Stachel is of relatively humble birth and he soon comes to realise that this will be an issue. The pilots are all officers, and they are drawn more or less exclusively from the upper classes. It’s not that they treat him badly as such. In general they don’t. The difficulty is that they have a set of shared cultural values and ideas about honour, and he does not share those values. His behaviour is misinterpreted simply because his way of approaching life, and more importantly his way of fighting a war, is different.
It is immediately obvious that Stachel is a very good pilot. Very good indeed. No-one doubts his skill or his courage. The question is over his honour. And these are men who take honour very seriously indeed. If Stachel had proved himself to be dishonourable there would have been no problem. They would simply have got rid of him. The big problem is that Stachel’s actions are ambiguous, and could be interpreted either way. The unease of the squadron’s commanding officer Colonel Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) steadily grows even as Stachel proves himself more and more to be a a very successful fighter pilot.
Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) is the squadron’s leading ace and his twentieth aerial victory has won him the coveted Pour le Mérite (popularly known as the Blue Max), the highest German decoration for skill and bravery. Stachel is determined to win the Blue Max as well. He sees it as the only way he can truly prove himself.
There is a certain tension between the aristocratic von Klugermann and Stachel, a tension that develops into a fierce rivalry. It is not just that Stachel shows himself to be a formidable rival in the air; they will also become rivals for the affections of the beautiful Countess Kaeti von Klugermann (Ursula Andress), the wife of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason). The General also happens to be Willi’s uncle. The rivalry between the two flyers is the key to the plot, directly or indirectly influencing every major plot point.
The plot might sound conventional and predictable but the way it is worked out is anything about. The movie manages to avoid all the obvious pitfalls. It avoids any kind of obviousness or clumsiness by making the characters complex, and the relationships between them even more complex.
Stachel is an outsider but the screenplay does not make the mistake of making him working class, which would be too obvious. He is middle class, but only just. He might not be as cultured as the other officers but he’s certainly not an uneducated yokel. What matters is that he is outside the upper classes. How far outside doesn’t matter.
Stachel and Willi von Klugermann are rivals but it is a rivalry tempered by a certain mutual respect. Stachel is a worthy and very formidable rival and von Klugermann finds the competition stimulating. He enjoys the competition. He is even amused by Stachel’s temerity in actually daring to pursue von Klugermann’s aunt, and when Stachel succeeds in his pursuit Willi is more irritated at being beaten than actually upset. After all it’s not as if Willi and Kaeti were in love. Their relationship was purely sexual, just another aristocratic amusement. Jeremy Kemp’s superb performance help the film considerably. For all his aristocratic manners and his sophisticated disdain for conventional sexual morality he is much more than a mere stereotype.
Colonel Heidemann strongly disapproves of Stachel but even in this case there is a grudging respect, and Heidemann is too much of a gentleman to condemn a man unless or until he has actual proof that the man has behaved dishonourably. Heidemann is a man who follows a very strict moral code but again the actor involved (in this case Karl Michael Vogler) gives him some depth.
Ursula Andress for once gets not only a good role but a challenging one. The Countess’s actions could easily lead the audience to view her as the scheming femme fatale but Andress makes her human. It’s by far the best performance I’ve ever sen her give.
That James Mason is good is no surprise at all. What is surprising is that even though the General is the least sympathetic of all the characters we understand why he does certain things even when we’re horrified by them.
The key of course is George Peppard’s performance, which has come in for a good deal of criticism. I’m perplexed by this, but then I’m perplexed by the extent to which this actor is routinely under-appreciated. In this film he faces one of his biggest acting challenges. He has to avoid making Stachel a conventional hero but he also has to avoid making him an antihero. For the movie to work the audience has to continue to care about Stachel’s fate even when he really does cross the line and commit a clearly dishonourable and reprehensible act. Stachel is arrogant but it has to be a different sort of arrogance to von Klugermann’s effortless aristocratic arrogance. He has to be arrogant but without being obnoxious. Stachel’s problem is not that he is generally speaking a bad man, or even a weak man. He simply fails to understand the unwritten rules which are second nature to the other officers. He decides to play by his own rules, but he is going to play to win. The audience has to see his fall from grace as being genuinely tragic, a mistake he cannot undo, and a mistake that can be seen as an understandable response to an implied insult that no German officer (regardless of class) could fail to be provoked by.
Peppard’s problem seems to have been that he was an unfashionable actor. At a time when the exaggerated and somewhat histrionic Method style was all the rage Peppard clearly belonged to a much more understated less-is-more school of acting. If in doubt Peppard would always underplay rather than overplay. In truth he was a fine actor and his performance in this film is subtle but entirely effective. He captures all the nuances of Stachel’s character and he makes him a living breathing human being. There’s not much more an actor can do.
The aerial sequences are stunning and this is a movie that does not stint on the action scenes. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is superb. A lot of money was spent on this film, and it was well spent.
The Blue Max does not take the obvious anti-war stance that you generally expect in films of this sort. This is a movie about old-fashioned virtues like courage and honour, although it explores them with a fair amount of complexity. This movie also avoids obviousness in its treatment of class. Some of the upper class characters behave badly while others display bravery and honour of a very high order. Whether their views are better or worse than Stachel’s isn’t the issue; the issue is that they see things differently.
The Blue Max delivers intelligent and spectacular entertainment. It’s a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen, or at least on a big widescreen TV. The DVD release is barebones but the transfer is excellent. Very highly recommended.